As I laid there in a heap on that cliffside, my body broken, bloodied and battered, never once did I think, “This is one of the best things to ever happen to me and will lead me down a path of personal and professional fulfillment.” But that’s what happened, and WordPress is among the biggest reasons why.
Please excuse my lack of mental clarity in that moment, as I had just fallen an estimated 40 to 50 feet down a rocky bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California.
Needless to say, I was in rough shape.
It was June 16, 2012, and whether I would have admitted it or not, I was definitely in a transformative period. If there ever were a time to have a life-changing moment, the pickings were ripe.
That sunny Saturday began with a goal of hiking 15 miles down the coast, taking in the scenery. Mere hours later the goal became survival. In the months that followed, I experienced recovery, renewal and rejuvenation.
A fall nearly took my life, but WordPress helped me find myself.
My wife Katie and I, the evening before my accident
A different state of mind
My story is different than most HeroPress essays. I did not grow up without, or learning to cope with an illness or disability. I am not a minority, nor do I belong to a marginalized class. I am a white, American male whom many would say lives a charmed life.
I do not dispute that.
However, that does not mean I have not faced adversity. My story is one of finding my own way — through trial and error, fierce independence, hard work, and lots and lots of ups and downs.
I was the kid who never knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
I realized at an early age that I *could* do whatever I wanted to do; I also learned there was a huge difference between being able to do something and wanting or enjoying to do something.
I was a pretty good all-around student — math, science, English and so forth — and was pushed toward pursuing a career with a big, important title like surgeon or attorney or chemist. I never had an interest in any of that — I couldn’t see myself going to school for years and years (and taking on even more debt than my four-year degree put me in) just because someone else thought I should.
Plus, the idea of “corporate America” never really appealed to me. Fighting the rat race every day to get to work in a skyscraper or suburban office complex, toiling away in a cubicle for eight hours, fighting the rat race to get home only to get up and do it all over again the next day. There must be something more.
I always wanted to be one of those people that woke up every day excited to go to work. I just never knew what that job should be.
Growing up in a digital world
My parents were elementary-school teachers so we always had access to the school computer (Literally, there was one. This was 1983 in rural Wisconsin!). When I reached high school, we had a shiny new Macintosh at home and it could dial into this thing called “The Internet.”
I chose to attend Drake University in part because it offered an Internet-connected PowerMac in every dorm room. (I cannot overstate how revolutionary this was in the early and mid 1990s!). I majored in Broadcast Journalism, enjoyed it and went on to work in the news media for a couple years, but it took all of a few weeks on campus to because completely enamored with HTML and early iterations of CSS.
I cobbled together a simple personal homepage using Geocities, and when I got bored of posting personal tidbits surrounded by animated GIFs, turned to creating subpages for bands I liked. That morphed into creating a site dedicated to the Des Moines music scene. That site became pretty popular, mostly because it was 1998 and very few bands had their own website, much less one that looked professional and was updated regularly.
I found that web designers were few and far between in those years, and was able to create small sites on the side for various businesses, groups and organizations as a way to make beer money. However the web was still very much like the Wild West and there was not a clear career path at that time for aspiring web designers, other than moving to Silicon Valley. I decided to pass and concentrate on completing my degree.
The years pass
Fast-forward about 10 years to 2012. I turned 35, and that milestone culminated in me quitting a job that I absolutely despised, not because of the job itself but because of the absolute tyrant of a “boss.”
I had never walked away from employment in my adult life without knowing my next move. But this time it was necessary.
Every day I had to sit there I became more and more miserable to the point that it was affecting my marriage and mental health.
Luckily I had built a great personal and professional network and various job opportunities soon presented themselves. I began to think hard about finding a career rather than a mere job — something I could build upon and grow within. It’s what we all dream, but it seems that few achieve. I was determined to beat those odds.
A close friend had recently left a communications position at a large utility about 40 miles from where I live, in a larger city with ample professional opportunity. I had always resisted looking for employment in that community, only because of the time it would take each day traveling to/from work. But, this was a very good-paying job that had essentially landed in my lap. My friend gave the workplace rave reviews, so everything seemed to be falling into place.
I went through the whole rigmarole, interviewing several times with different people. Things were going well. It got to the point that on Friday, June 15, 2012, I received a call from the man whom would be my boss, letting me know that the field had been narrowed to me and one other person. He said as much as he was legally able, and reading through the lines, the job was mine. All I had to do was clear one final hurdle upon my return to Wisconsin.
For the first time in months, I could see the future unfolding and it felt good.
While my new “career” was not what I had expected to find I was perfectly content in my decisions. As I walked around Huntington Beach, CA that afternoon the cloudy skies gave way to beautiful, warm sunshine. I thought it was a sign that everything was going to be OK. I had no idea what was next.
My hospital bracelet, one of the first things I recall seeing upon waking up from surgery
I awoke the morning of June 16, 2012, with the intention of walking along the Pacific Ocean from La Jolla to Ocean Beach, CA. Once there my wife would pick me up after her meetings were over, marking the beginning of a few days of much-needed vacation time before heading home.
I had spent hours carefully mapping out my route, creating a personal Google Map with all the places I wanted to stop for rest, a bite to eat and so forth, as well as where I could cut down side streets to/from the beach.
I thought I had it all planned out so well.
I set out from our hotel, which sits on a bluff high above the Pacific Ocean and abuts two world-caliber golf courses. Google Earth had shown me a route of how to get across the golf course and to a path that would lead me down to the beach below. All I had to do was hop a fence and I was home-free.
Once over the fence I made a fateful decision to not follow my planned route, which would have taken me to a set of stairs that led to the beach. Instead I believed I had found a “shortcut” that would take me to the beach much more quickly and directly than my mapped route.
Little did I know that this was what I later was told the locals refer to as a “false path.” I carefully made my way down the cliff, slipping a few times due to the loose gravel and the fact that I was wearing slip-on shoes — not the best choice for a steep hike. Undeterred, I continued down this path until I came to a spot where going back up was not an option (due to the cliff giving way), and going down further would definitely mean taking a tumble of some sort.
My head swirled. What was I to do? Should I call 911? No, that would mean I’d have to admit I made a mistake and, I reckoned with myself, health insurance doesn’t pay for a cliffside rescue if there are no injuries. I tried and tried to climb back up, to no avail, until my clothes were completely drenched with sweat.
Sensing futility, I sat down to rest. That 10 or so minutes gave me a lot to think about. People always ask me if death was on my mind. I can honestly say that thought never once crossed my mind. I began trying to rationalize one of the few choices I had: To jump to a point where I could safely slide down a ways on my butt, allowing me to continue down the cliff. What’s the worst that can happen, I thought; a broken arm and some scrapes.
I decided this was my only choice and spent a few minutes pumping myself up. The plan was to launch myself from where I was stuck, trying to reach a rock that stuck out of the cliff, perhaps 6-8 feet away. If I could just grab onto that rock, I could gather myself before letting go in an attempt to let gravity do its thing. I snapped a couple photos of where I was at, just in case no one believed what was shaping up to be quite the story.
I am not a religious man, but I said a silent prayer and went for it. I jumped as far as I could, getting my hands on the intended target rock, only to feel my fingers slip off. Down I went.
All I remember was smacking my face on the cliffside, then free-falling for what felt like an eternity, followed by a slide even further down.
I never lost consciousness, and when I came to a rest I was somehow able to adjust my body so that I was sitting up straight, faced with the most picturesque Pacific Ocean view imaginable.
I screamed for help for a minute or two before realizing it was hopeless. I was still fairly high above the beach, it was windy, the waves were crashing against the shore, and there was no one directly below. It quickly became apparent that if I were to survive, it was up to me and only me.
Upon gathering myself enough to realize the situation and that my injuries were very severe, my first fear was that I was paralyzed. My right leg was crumpled below me in a way that defies explanation and at first I could not feel it. My right shoe had slipped off in the fall, so I grabbed my right heel and found that there was feeling. That calmed me enough to be able to fish my phone out of my left pocket, something I could not have done had it been in my right pocket.
I called 911 for the first time in my life. People from San Diego later told me that I should not have had reception in that spot, and sure enough when I later checked, the service map was white (no service) where I was. Miraculously the call went through and I spent the next 26 minutes on the phone with the operator. Luckily I knew right where I was and a lifeguard on a Waverunner was able to locate me and signal to others where I was at.
My right femur has been broken into three pieces. My right orbital bone was shattered — much like a windshield after being hit by a rock — as a result of my face slamming against the rocks. I was bleeding profusely from above my right eye and had serious scrapes and abrasions below the waist from sliding down the cliff after a free fall.
At this point the adrenaline was pumping pretty good, but once my rescuers arrived I started to go into shock. They gave me a shot to counteract those effects, and I was able to tell them to call my wife to let her know I was OK. I still did not realize the extent of my injuries.
I thought I would be going to the ER and would be released later that day. I was wrong.
I spent the next three-and-a-half days in the hospital, followed by another day in a hotel awaiting our flight home to Wisconsin. Even though I was full of painkillers I was in more pain than I could ever have imagined.
If you’ve read this far you might be wondering what this all has to do with WordPress. Needless to say, faced with a long recovery and unable to drive, I didn’t get that job with the utility.
Once at home I was couch-bound for nearly four months as my leg slowly healed. I’ve never been a huge movie fan and one can only watch so much TV before becoming very bored. I convinced my wife that I needed a new laptop to pass the time.
Two years earlier I had been introduced to WordPress via a non-profit organization whose board of directors I joined. They needed someone to keep their website up-to-date, and it just so happened they recently had converted it to WordPress. At that time I did not view WordPress as an avenue toward personal and professional freedom and satisfaction, but it certainly was easier than writing code by hand and scored points for being a handy and easy-to-understand tool.
I have always been a fan and supporter of open-source software, and how digital collaboration has helped shape the Internet and world.
As I lay on that couch and as the summer days passed, I read up on WordPress. The more I read, the more it intrigued me.
I learned there was a thriving WordPress community of like-minded individuals, entrepreneurs and others making a living, and while I may not have known anyone locally, advice and assistance was readily available online.
I dove in head-first, initially because I needed something to help pass the time during my recovery. As I learned and experimented, I came to view WordPress and website development as something that I could once again do to earn a little bit of money and help pay the bills.
I had a pretty good local network due to my community volunteerism, and soon found a mid-size nonprofit organization who needed help maintaining its current website. That site was built upon some sort of proprietary CMS that did not work anywhere near as well as WordPress. After a few months, talk turned to building a new site and I strongly advocated for WordPress.
It worked, and the rest, as they say, is history. I am not saying that the journey was an easy one; developing that first site was filled with missteps, mistakes and things I had to re-do several times.
But I was learning, I was independent, and I was making the best out of sitting on the couch 90 percent of the time.
That first project turned out well enough to impress the organization, and led them to suggest my services to others. Soon I had a handful of clients who turned to me because they had heard of this tool called WordPress but needed an “expert” to guide them. This led me to believe that this was a sustainable business, and perhaps could be the career that I had sought for so long.
How I feel every day when I wake up and realize I am my own boss
What WordPress means to me
I love everything about WordPress, but also realize that I am nowhere close to mastering this wonderful tool. I think that is what drives me to get up every morning — the chance to learn something new, to solve a problem, to seek out solutions, to expand my skill set for future projects. And, most importantly, WordPress provides me a vehicle through which I am able to set my own course, be my own boss, and build things my own way.
I love the WordPress community and all those whom I have met or interacted. You are some very, very smart people! I relish the chance to extend my interest in volunteerism to the WordPress community, giving back to those who are just learning. I have attended WordCamps near and far, and in January 2016 founded a local WordPress Meetup group in the city where I live. I also spent three semesters teaching “WordPress 101” at the local technical college. These experiences, all because of WordPress, introduced me to others locally who share my love of WordPress.
I officially launched Why The Fuss? Technical Solutions, my one-man design and development shop, on June 1, 2013, just two weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of my accident. I have been asked why I did not wait until June 16 to launch as a symbolic date. I have never before really told anyone why.
The doctors told me it would be a full 12 months before I was fully back up on my feet. I viewed launching my business as a way to prove to myself that while time frame was accurate, on June 16, 2013 I wanted to be able to look back at what the previous year had laid bare for me with a positive outlook toward the future.
I am well aware of the fact that I do not know everything there is to know, about WordPress or life in general. But this excites me and drives me to do more.
In the past this type of situation would have driven me crazy, as I did not have such a heavy investment in whatever I was doing; it was just a job.
WordPress has helped me find a career, one I never would have found if not for a series of unfortunate events and fateful decisions. I look forward to continuing this journey of personal and professional fulfillment.